Lessons yet to be learned in gov­ern­ment pay fi­asco

Northumberland Today - - OPINION -

The most chill­ing sen­tence in last week’s re­port on the Phoenix pay pro­ject is this pro­nounce­ment: “These are lessons yet to be learned, not lessons that have been learned.”

That’s from Goss Gil­roy Inc. man­age­ment con­sul­tants, whose ex­am­i­na­tion painstak­ingly lays out 17 “lessons” or, to put it sim­ply, ways in which the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and se­nior pub­lic ser­vants sim­ply blew it.

They blew it by not prop­erly defin­ing the scope of their plan to mod­ern­ize and con­sol­i­date how fed­eral pay stubs are han­dled, not hav­ing a roadmap to break this huge task into smaller, co­he­sive projects and not mak­ing one min­ster or agency clearly re­spon­si­ble for it.

They blew it by not en­sur­ing rig­or­ous over­sight, dis­cour­ag­ing any­one from chal­leng­ing or ques­tion­ing the pro­ject’s progress, ig­nor­ing the change-re­sis­tant cul­ture of the pub­lic ser­vice and not com­mu­ni­cat­ing or train­ing peo­ple ef­fec­tively.

They blew it by not en­sur­ing the soft­ware be­ing pur­chased could han­dle the tasks set out, not en­sur­ing there were use­ful check­points along the way to keep things on track, in­sist­ing on am­bi­tious sav­ings from the start, not see­ing to it that de­part­ments had the proper re­sources to make the changes, not prop­erly test­ing the new IT setup be­fore launch, not tak­ing ad­van­tage of pri­vate sec­tor ex­per­tise and by hav­ing no con­tin­gency plan if Phoenix failed to fly.

Could they have got­ten any­thing else wrong? It barely seems pos­si­ble. So, to be told the lessons have “yet” to be learned, it is to shud­der.

GGI — rather kindly, given the ev­i­dence it pro­ceeds to lay out in its 60-page re­port — says it was “the un­der­es­ti­ma­tion of the ini­tia­tive’s com­plex­ity that led to its down­fall.” It never uses words such as “ne­glect,” “in­com­pe­tence,” “in­dif­fer­ence,” “dis­re­spect” or any of the other terms that leap to mind as one reads through its sys­tem­atic take­down of the grand ini­tia­tive aimed at smoothen­ing and mod­ern­iz­ing the way fed­eral pub­lic ser­vants are paid.

That some­thing needed do­ing about pub­lic ser­vants’ pay wasn’t in dis­pute. The gov­ern­ment needed a bet­ter way.

But its plan un­rav­elled quickly. A few find­ings from the re­port:

• Very few peo­ple un­der­stood the mass and com­plex­ity of the pay sys­tem, other than the gov­ern­ment’s com­pen­sa­tion ad­vis­ers, 700 of whom were laid off as the gov­ern­ment tried to re­al­ize sav­ings.

• Even very se­nior bu­reau­crats didn’t un­der­stand the ex­tent of the changes be­ing in­tro­duced or the risks to their em­ploy­ees’ pay.

• No one min­istry or min­is­ter had over­all author­ity over the pro­ject, or ac­count­abil­ity for it.

• Peo­ple in­volved did not feel they could speak “truth to power.” Bu­reau­crats were dis­cour­aged from giv­ing brief­ings to their su­pe­ri­ors that con­tained bad news.

• Stake­hold­ers who could have “asked more pointed ques­tions” didn’t do so.

• The cul­ture of the pub­lic ser­vice was “un­re­cep­tive to in­con­ve­nient feed­back.”

• Pro­ject teams weren’t given enough in­for­ma­tion to han­dle even the strict data re­quire­ments of the plan prop­erly.

The pay trans­for­ma­tion pro­ject con­tin­ues to flut­ter from dis­as­ter to dis­as­ter, up to the present, though the re­port it­self looks at events only up to April 2016. Most of this mess hap­pened un­der Stephen Harper’s regime, but so deep is the cri­sis that the Lib­er­als of Justin Trudeau will wear it too.

At a news briefing, min­is­ters could not pre­dict when the pay sys­tem would be fixed.

They as­sured us, though, that they have learned the lessons GGI spelled out. On that point, we can all be for­given for some healthy skep­ti­cism. cspencer@post­media.com

CHRISTINA SPENCER

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